Credit Cole Wilson for The New York Times
A gentle reminder: The Justice Department backing off demands that Apple help it break the security of an iPhone six months ago does not mean law enforcement isn’t still very interested in the information gathered and protected by tech companies.
And the feds would very much like to keep what they are looking for a secret.
On Tuesday, Open Whisper Systems, maker of the widely used Signal encryption app, detailed how the Justice Department wanted access to all sorts of information related to its user accounts connected to telephone numbers. The company was also put under a gag order for a year.
Open Whisper Systems, working with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully fought the gag order. But investigators were barking up the wrong tree since the company actually stores very little information about its users.
Yahoo, on the other hand, is a different story. As Charlie Savage and Nicole Perlroth write, Yahoo was also placed under a gag order when it received a secret court order to scan all of its emails for the computer signatures of a state-sponsored terrorist organization. Yahoo did this by tweaking an existing system for scanning all inbound email for child pornography, spam and malware.
Tech companies say they do not take issue with assisting in law enforcement investigations — though the scale of the Yahoo email scanning is jarring. What they do take issue with is the secrecy demanded of them. In many cases, these government gag orders are open-ended, meaning the companies are never allowed to talk about them.
Never is a long time. And Microsoft and Twitter have filed separate lawsuits in which they hope they can convince a judge or jury that “never” is also unacceptable.